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June 23-27, 2001    
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John Paul II on Eastern Christianity

Like his predecessors on the throne of Peter, Pope John Paul II has had a special concern for the Churches of the Christian East. These are Churches which originated in Eastern Europe and the Middle and Near East, many of which were founded by the apostles and so have a long Christian history.

The Popes and the Christian East

Throughout history the popes have always been concerned about the welfare of Churches of the Christian East. The popes have made special efforts to establish and maintain unity with these Churches.

As one of these Eastern Churches, the Ukrainian Church has had special relations with the papacy since the beginnings of Christianity.

Maintaining Church unity is a fundamental duty of the Papacy and union with the Papacy is the visible mark of Catholicity. As communication has improved and travel has been made easier in recent centuries, especially in the twentieth century, contacts between East and West have increased and greater understanding and friendship on both sides has resulted. When there has been misunderstanding or conflict it has generally been between local communities of differing traditions, such as Catholics of the Latin tradition and Greeks, and not between those local communities and Rome.

Civil authorities who wanted to control the Churches within their influence have also been an obstacle to church unity. The history of the Church in Ukraine, both Orthodox and Catholic, provides many concrete examples of such government involvement in religious affairs.

As the Papacy has worked for the union of Christians, it has tried to assure the differing parties that union does not pose a threat either to the customs and traditions of local churches or to the sovereignty of states.


John Paul II on the Christian East

The election of John Paul II brought to the Holy See a pope from the East with a deep concern for Christians not of the Western tradition. During his life John Paul II has had much contact with these Christians. He shared the hardships and persecutions that many Eastern Christians suffered under both Nazism and Communism. (The Ukrainian Church was also caught between these two totalitarian monsters.)

Following the fall of the Soviet system, in which he played a significant role, John Paul II turned his attention to the welfare of the surviving churches. He especially encouraged Catholic organizations in the West to dedicate their resources to the rebuilding of both Catholic and Orthodox communities.

The clearest evidence of the positive attitude of the Papacy towards its eastern brothers is to be found in the various documents that have been published during the pontificate of John Paul II.


Documents on the Christian East written by John Paul II

The most important of these has been the encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint which was published on 25 May 1995. This is a statement of the Church's attitude to the Eastern Churches of apostolic origin and also, to a lesser degree, to the Protestant Churches dating to the sixteenth century.

Further understanding of the profound love of the Holy Father for his eastern brethren can be found in the Apostolic Letters of his pontificate that refer specifically to the Eastern Churches. The first of these, Orientale Lumen, discusses the great gifts that those churches can bring to the Universal Church and the importance of preserving their traditions. This was published on 2 May 1995.

Four more Apostolic Letters have been published to commemorate specific events of historic importance in the ecclesiastical history of the East:
Apostolic Letter for the Fourth Centenary of the Union of Brest
12 November 1995
(At the Union of Brest a part of the Church in Ukraine came into full ecclesial communion with the Holy See.)

Apostolic Letter for the 350 Years of the Union of Uzhorod.
18 April 1996

300th Anniversary of the Union of the Greek Catholic Church of Romania with the Church of Rome.
20 July 2000

On the Occasion of the 1700th Anniversary of the Baptism of Armenia.
17 February 2001

All of these documents can be accessed and read or downloaded at: www.vatican.va /john_paul_ii /apost_letters /index.htm


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